Education and Environmental Responsibility

By John J. Phillips

One fine summer day, as Plato tells the story, Socrates meets a young man by the name of Phaedrus, who has spent the morning talking with a famous orator. Phaedrus has decided to take a walk in the country and Socrates, eager to hear about his conversation, agrees to accompany him, Once outside the walls of Athens, Phaedrus heads for a place where a tall plane tree promises shade and there is grass to lie on. When they arrive at the great tree, Socrates praises his surroundings with such obvious delight that Phaedrus realizes he rarely goes even this far from Athens. Socrates explains that he is fond of learning. “These places and trees,” he says, “are unwilling to teach me anything, unlike the men who live in the city.”

When Plato included this conversation in the Phaedrus, he could scarcely have imagined how much subsequent Western thinking about nature would reflect Socrates’ words. We have come to see the natural world as separate from ourselves and subservient to our needs, a vast resource to be tamed and exploited rather than something that includes us and makes human life possible. That nature might indeed teach us how to live is no more evident to many of us than it was to Socrates. And because this way of looking at the world is rooted in our intellectual tradition, education itself, though potentially a corrective, tends to perpetuate and even exacerbate the problem. As members of Phi Beta Kappa, we have a special reason to be concerned about this. To quote the Handbook for New Members, our organization recognizes “intellectual capacities well employed, especially in the acquiring of an education in the liberal arts and sciences,” the very disciplines that represent the Western tradition.

Education alone – even when it aims to improve understanding of our environment – cannot ensure that a person will act intelligently and responsibility; but it can provide the knowledge base for intelligent and responsible action. A handful of colleges have already put this concept into practice, but these are small schools with programs outside the mainstream of the undergraduate curriculum. At the more traditional institutions there has been a proliferation of courses on environmentally related topics that can be taken as electives, often by freshmen. But elective courses are a matter of choice. Their impact is limited because many students choose not to take them, and nothing prevents those students from graduating without the knowledge they will need to understand environmental issues and make well-informed decisions. Our colleges and universities can do better than that, and it’s not hard to see where they might begin.

So many of the environmental challenges that face us involve scientific analysis that the faculty in the sciences probably should be the first to reconsider what they teach and how they teach it. Instead of postponing the study of environmental issues to advanced courses, they could redesign the curriculum with a sharper environmental focus in the first-year courses in biology and chemistry and geology and physics, because introductory courses enroll the largest number of students. But the most effective step by far would be to create new general education courses – required for graduation – that will help every student to understand human impact on the natural world. How problems are identified, and what methodologies are used to study them and propose solutions. 

While the sciences are an obvious place to start, the entire arts and sciences curriculum should be carefully reexamined. The departmentalized structure of most colleges and universities makes it far too easy for faculty to prepare their students to be expert but narrow professionals when there is an urgent need for broadly educated individuals. Real world problems like climate change are so complex that any attempt to solve them will necessarily involve vast social, political, and economic ramifications. Such problems can never be adequately addressed by any single academic discipline, and no program of environmental education will succeed if it is merely a series of courses offered by specialists for future specialists. Environmental education must be transdisciplinary. To create a better understanding of the continuum that is the real world, faculty will need encouragement and support to build bridges to other disciplines and reconsider the fundamentals of their own in light of what other fields can teach them. 

To implement such a proposal will require more than a willing faculty; it will require the cooperation of deans, provosts, and presidents. Members of Phi Beta Kappa will be found in all of those positions. And those of us who are not in academe can speak up as alumni and let the institutions who awarded our keys know that we want today’s students to have the knowledge they will need to meet their social and environmental responsibilities.

John J. Phillips is the treasurer of the Alpha of Ohio chapter at Case Western Reserve University.